Sporthaus has been serving Tri-City outdoor enthusiasts for 40 years
Steve McConnell’s life changed the day his parents took him skiing for the first time in his life.
“I was a basketball player, but I was lucky that my folks introduced me to skiing when I was in seventh grade,” he said. “From the first time I skied down the hill, I knew I found my next sport.”
And it’s been his main sport ever since. It also turned into his career.
For decades, McConnell and his business partner, Bart Munson, have enjoyed helping customers find the right pair of skis, boots, etc., at Sporthaus Northwest in Kennewick.
“I’m 67, and my wife keeps telling me to retire,” McConnell said. “But I like coming to work. My partner, who is three to four years younger than me, feels the same. As far as an exit strategy, we don’t have one.”
Which is fine, because the pair love helping outdoor sports enthusiasts year-round.
Three outdoor sports enthusiasts opened Sporthaus Northwest opened in 1980 – Jim McClelland was an original partner.
Back then, the Tri-Cities had plenty of local sporting goods stores – Ski Racquet, BB&M, and Pete’s Sport Shop.
But while those stores faded away, Sporthaus kept going. And even during a pandemic, the store continues to thrive.
“The key has been good customer service,” McConnell said. “We struggled for years early on but we started getting repeat customers. Their kids are coming in now, and their kids have kids coming in.”
A big reason is the staff’s expertise of the products.
“It’s not just Bart and myself. We’ve got a good crew here. I’ve got a great staff,” McConnell said.
Nearly every time Sporthaus Northwest employees – there are 10 full-time employees in the winter, 10 part time – head up a mountain, they usually bring along a few products to test.
That allows them to feel confident in advising customers.
“I test products every time I go up on a mountain,” McConnell said. “We shoot for 20 days every year to do that.”
Shoulder surgery has kept McConnell off the slopes for a while. But now he’s ready, although “I probably won’t start until after Jan. 1.”
The team is constantly learning about new products. “We are continually educated through Zoom, clinics, balancing and fitting. We get into that stuff,” McConnell said.
That’s why customers keep coming back, he said.
“In our state, there are only five or six stores that can do what we can do,” he said. “I’d tell local shoppers that we’re a unique store. You can’t find the services that we offer around here. Maybe Spokane. But we built our business. We’re good at it. We know that customers trust us.”
McConnell said most of Sporthaus’ business comes during the winter season, about 60%.
Of that business, 70% is skiing, while the rest is snowboarding.
Skis are much easier to handle than snowboards, McConnell said, especially with rapidly changing technology.
“Skis have changed a lot in the last 15 years,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of young families, where the father may have been a snowboarder in his younger days, but now is going back to skis. Mom and dad have their skis, and they get skis for the kids.”
The store also rents ski packages. Sporthaus inherited the rental business about four years ago when the chain store Sports Authority shuttered its doors in Kennewick.
For about $200, adults can rent a ski package for the season that includes boots, poles and skis.
The store also offers ski and snowboard services to tune up, wax or repair gear.
McConnell said he has noticed a change in shopping habits during this pandemic.
“What I’m seeing is a lot of people who’ve been renting from us now seem to be buying,” he said.
That’s where the quality products comes in.
About 14 years ago, Sporthaus joined a buyer’s group to get in on some of the top products available – skis, clothes, gloves, boots, you name it.
“It allows us to buy the best models, the best lines and the best deals,” he said.
That also includes snowboards, something McConnell stays away from.
“Snowboarding was invented in the early 1980s,” he said. “The skate crowd (which took up with snowboards in the winter) was rebellious. Bart is my partner, and he said we’ve got to do it. I wanted nothing to do with it, so he learned all about it. We hire young people to sell them.”
McConnell said the store turns over its inventory twice a year.
“We switch seasons in April,” said McConnell, who admits “we’re not as busy in the summer as we are in the winter. In the offseason, we scale back a bit to six full-timer employees, and four or five part-timers.”
Though this year, the store’s “summer business was crazy,” he said.
It might have been because people were getting stir crazy with the lockdown. Customers had a tough time buying a boat in early June.
“In the marinas, you couldn’t find an open spot,” McConnell said. “We had a good summer and we didn’t advertise anything.”
Right around Labor Day, the store switches over to winter sports inventory.
“It’s super important to have snow by Christmas, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s can make you or break you,” McConnell said. “The areas have a lot of snow right now. We’re supposed to have a La Niña this year.”
And he’s confident skiing will be a booming business this year around the Northwest.
“The industry says it’s flat. We don’t see that,” he said. “The mountains are full, the mountains are busy.”
The Northwest did take a little financial beating in March.
Jordan Elliot, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, told KREM TV in Spokane recently that last season, resorts in Alaska, Oregon and Washington lost $87 million in revenue when the pandemic forced an earlier end to the season.
Because of the pandemic, McConnell does see people staying close to their home mountains.
“Bluewood will be one of the safest places this year,” he said. “A lot of people outside the area are not traveling in the pandemic. It’s a good year to ski local.”
From McConnell’s point of view, based what he’s hearing from the many customers who come through his door and on what he’s seen at resorts, skiing remains a big business.
“More people are getting into, or getting back into, skiing,” he said. “… We’ve seen nothing but growth.”
And life has been good for the guys who run a local outdoor sports business that’s been around for 40 years.
“We got into the business not to get rich but because we love sports,” McConnell said. “In fact, Thanksgiving is our last day off for a while. But that’s OK. We sell fun.”
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